GHOSTBUSTERS vs. BACK TO THE FUTURE
I was sitting in front of my TV late Sunday night, eyes half-closed, ready to head for bed if I didn't find something to watch in the next five seconds. Like a gift from the heavens, I suddenly chanced upon a just-beginning Ghostbusters on Spike TV. Hell. Yes. I spent the next 150 minutes happily reliving one of my favourite movies of all time. As a sign of how much I love Ghostbusters, I even gave it the highest honour an internet film user can bestow upon a movie --- a perfect 10 rating on the IMDB. I know, I know, hold your applause until the end of the ceremony. A panel of hand-picked experts (me and five empty chairs) broke down the criteria until it was fully proven that Ghostbusters deserved a place in this highest of pantheons.
The Ghostbusters franchise has given me joy for almost as long as I remember. I watched the cartoon as a five-year-old, and then on a chance trip to a K-Mart, noticed one of the TVs showing four men with proton packs that looked suspiciously like my animated heroes. Wait a second...there was a Ghostbusters MOVIE?? My young mind was blown. My adolescence was geared around Ghostbusters for the next several years --- I had the toys, dressed up as a Ghostbuster for Halloween, and perhaps most publicly, used to play my own Ghostbusters games during recess at grade school using a pair of sticks as props. This seems weird even in hindsight. Let's just say my school didn't have a child psychologist. (Hell, I still have those two sticks to this day. I keep them around as good luck charms. This may seem unusual, but if I said that I got luck from a severed foot from a bunny, nobody would bat an eye).
Rather than simply write a massive post relating everything I love about Ghostbusters, however, I decided to get competitive. You see, there's another 80's classic that earned a perfect IMDB 10 --- the original Back to the Future. Back in early 1990, the third BTTF movie was about to be released, and the hype was off the charts. Having never seen the first two, I naturally wanted to catch up before going to see the trilogy's finale. Wednesday night was the unofficial movie night in my household, as since that night was my mum's Sweet Adelines rehearsal night, my dad usually rented a flick for he, my brother and I to enjoy for some family time. So, one Wednesday, we watched Back to the Future. The next week was Back to the Future II. The next week, hell, I dunno, probably Oliver & Company or some shit, but by this time I was up to speed and was ready for BTTF III in theatres.
Since I came into Back to the Future at a slightly older age, I was more appreciative of things like story and how cleverly the time-travel elements were constructed. Yes, even at age nine I was preparing for a future of writing snarky movie reviews on a blog. But little did I know that I was also planting the seeds for the ultimate showdown between two titans of my childhood. Yes, it's time to truly decide which was the better franchise. Pack a lunch, this is going to be a long (and, since I'm tired and lazy, a grammatical nightmare of a) ride.
Hmm, Murray/Aykroyd/Ramis vs. Fox/Lloyd. Tough call. I'm going to make my first controversial call right off the bat by saying that as great as the Ghostbusters guy were in their roles, they weren't irreplacable. In fact, Bill Murray was actually the second choice as Peter Venkman after John Belushi passed away. Eddie Murphy was the original choice as Winston, which would've taken the movie in a whole different direction. Internet message boards have spent a lot of bandwidth arguing over who could be new 'modern' Ghostbusters, especially when it was rumoured in the late 90's that this was Aykroyd's new idea for a revival of the franchise. Everyone from Jim Carrey to Ben Stiller to Chris Rock to the Frat Pack have been mentioned at one time or another as possible new Ghostbusters. Heck, just look at the current trailers for Be Kind Rewind --- Jack Black and Mos Def as Ghostbusters, no doubt fulfilling childhood dreams of pretending to be Ray and Winston. Try it yourself: cast a new Ghostbusters. You need a sarcastic, perpetually bemused ladies' man (Venkman); a monotone scientific genius (Spengler); a down-to-earth common sense man of the people (Zeddemore); and an enthusiastic combination of the brains and common sense, wrapped in a somewhat little-kid persona (Stantz). I've said for years that there is money to be made in reviving Ghostbusters as a weekly sci-fi/comedy hour-long network show. Have Aykroyd and company make the occasional cameo as the senior advisors, get some writers from the Buffy/Angel/Lost cabal and let it rip. That is ratings gold just waiting to be mined.
But, as I said, you could definitely picture others slipping on the proton packs in a modern-day Ghostbusters remake. But imagine if it was announced tomorrow that they were remaking Back to the Future with, say, Shia LeBeouf as Marty and Michael Richards as Doc Brown. There would be instant derision, and not just because of Richards' stand-up comedy stylings. Michael J. Fox is one of the true underrated comedy actors of recent times, and it took a deft hand to keep Marty from being an unlikable punk. On the face of it, Marty is a) a degenerate student, b)nearly ruins the universe just because he wanted to make a few bets on sports and c) is best friends with a crazy elderly scientist. There are a lot of ways this character could've gone awry. Same with Doc Brown. Remember how Doc got the plutonium to run the DeLorean from some Libyan terrorists? That was a pretty fucking weird subplot that the movie more or less glossed over. I'm surprised Dick Cheney didn't try to co-opt it when trying to promote the Patriot Act. "Terrorists could be anywhere. They were even in the small California town of Hill Valley. Be afraid!"
This is a hard call, especially given the fact that Aykroyd and Ramis get bonus points for actually creating the Ghostbusters franchise itself. This is probably as good a place as any to mention the ongoing tug-of-war that Aykroyd and Ramis have been doing with Bill Murray over the franchise for the last two decades. Aykroyd has been pushing for more movies, more cartoons, more everything, but Murray (who co-owns the character rights) has been steadily shooting down 90 percent of the ideas since he isn't a fan of rehashing old material. He relented once for the cartoon and again for the sequel, but that's been essentially it before the highly-anticipated Ghostbusters video game is released this summer. I can see both men's points. As a GB fan, I obviously would've loved to see more Ghostbusters films and whatnot, but let's remember that Aykroyd's batting average isn't exactly flawless. Blues Brothers 2000? Soul Man? The Coneheads movie? It's quite possible Ghostbusters might've gone down this same road and we'd all be shaking our heads right now in dread at a Ghostbusters VIII in theatres this summer. Murray may be stingy in doling out the GB-related goodness over the years, but it may be for our own good.
EDGE: Back to the Future. Actually, as an example of the 'think of a Ghostbusters cast' idea, how about the all-BTTF Ghostbusters? Michael J. Fox as Peter. Lloyd as Egon. Crispin Glover as Ray. Thomas F. Wilson as Winston. Mary Steenburgen as Dana. Lea Thompson as, uh, Slimer. If you've seen a modern picture of Lea Thompson, she wouldn't even need makeup.
Where have you gone, Rick Moranis? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. He dropped off the face of the earth in the mid-nineties, leaving behind a surprisingly strong legacy. Little Shop of Horrors, Parenthood, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Spaceballs and a starring role in the greatest sketch comedy cast of all time (boy, there's another post topic for another time) on SCTV. Louis Tully, in all honesty, is one of Moranis' lesser characters, but even still, he has some great moments. In the scene where he's hosting the party in his apartment, he talks more or less nonstop from the beginning of the scene until he's attacked by the demon dog in his bedroom and chased into Central Park. Fun fact: the role of Louis was originally planned to be a lot more uptight, and played by John Candy.
As I mentioned earlier, alternate-universe casting had Eddie Murphy as Winston, which would've made Winston obviously a much bigger character in the movie. That always bugged me when I was a kid. I was familiar with the cartoons before I saw the movie, and all four Ghostbusters are presented on an equal level in the animated version. In the movie, however, it's Peter, Ray and Egon, and then two-thirds of the way in they hire Winston more or less out of nowhere, he gets about six more lines in the whole movie and that's that. One of those lines is the immortal "Ray, if someone asks you if you're a god, you say YES!", but even still, he's a blank slate. In all honesty, he doesn't even need to be in the movie. Poor Ernie Hudson. To this day, he's best known as Winston in Ghostbusters, and yet his was the most extraneous role in the movie.
Sigourney Weaver does yeoman's work as Dana, which is a pretty thankless role all things considered. The far more entertaining female character is Janine, who Annie Potts managed to capture just by the tone of her voice. Ghostbusters is very much a boy's movie, whereas BTTF featured a significant feminine element in the figure of Lorraine McFly. Before she became America's least-favourite sitcom star in Caroline In The City, Lea Thompson could actually bring the goods. It would've been very easy for an actor to go overboard with the "Lorraine is in love with her future son" angle and thus make it gross, but Thompson played it just right. Lorraine is just sweet enough that you can see why George is infatuated with her beyond the fact that she's hot.
And then, of course, there was George McFly. In the annals of Oscar history, there are few snubs more galling than Crispin Glover not being nominated for best supporting actor in 1985. Say what you will about Glover's later career and later insanity, but he absolutely hit this role out of the park. What a truly original characterization. He also made "I can't ask Lorraine to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance..." a running joke years later in my school newspaper office when one of my co-editors was named Lorraine. I don't use the term "feel-good" too often, but the scene where George finally punches Biff in the jaw is one of the true feel-good moments in the movies. That scene is the highlight of the film, and after we get the scene at the dance with Marty being Chuck Berry and George shoving that red-haired guy who looks like Ron Howard on meth, we're already satisfied enough that it makes Marty's actual return to the future somewhat anti-climactic. You could argue that this even extends to the sequels --- those two are just time-travel movies, whereas the original BTTF is a cut above because of the love story.
EDGE: Back to the Future. Again, the supporting characters of BTTF are so key to the plot and so perfectly designed that they linger in the mind a lot more than the Ghostbusters supporting cast. You can do Ghostbusters without Dana, Louis or even Winston or Janine. You can't do BTTF without George and Lorraine.
Biff Tannen is one of the greatest villains in movie history. His exclusion from that AFI 'best heroes and villains' list a few years back is unabashed horseshit. Thomas F. Wilson didn't really do much else in his career, but really, once you've achieved perfection in your first role, there's nowhere else to go but down. It's not enough that Biff was the perfect bully for the 1950's --- he was also a sleazy middle-aged man, a demented alternate-future tycoon, a sneaky senior citizen capable of comprehending a time machine, and a violent outlaw. Each role was slightly tweaked, yet all unmistakably Tannen. Biff-isms like "Hello, McFly!" and screwing up the "make like a tree and leave" joke have entered the cultural zeitgeist for all time. Here's a fun little casting tidbit: go back and watch the first two BTTF movies and pay closer attention to Biff's gang. The guy who always has the match in his mouth? It's none other than walkoff-incitor and Titanic villain Billy Zane! Truly, a stepping stone on his way to becoming the biggest star of the 21st century. Biff and his cronies were such good villains that you didn't really need much else. I guess Marty's bald principal was kind of an ass, but I can't bear a grudge against a bald character. Poor Mr. Strickland. So misunderstood.
The Ghostbusters faced off against not just supernatural foes, but also red tape-wielding civic government. William Atherton and Kurt Fuller (two of the great 'that guy' character actors) were their usual asshole selves as the bureaucrats who went after the Ghostbusters in the two films. Fuller went on to annoy a whole new generation of SNL cast members as Russell in Wayne's World. Vigo, the main villain of Ghostbusters II, is underrated as a nemesis. I once referred to an unattractive woman in a bar as Vigo the Carpathian's sister and it got a laugh, so clearly that wacky painting had some cultural staying power. Of course, everyone remembers the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and Slimer, but perhaps my perceptions of them are coloured by the fact that they're good guys in the cartoons. Turning into Stay-Puft was the best thing that ever happened to Gozer, who was frankly kind of a dull nemesis for the amount of build-up that she/he/it got. When I was a kid, in fact, I thought that Gozer's initial form was that of an altered Janine, since the actress that played Gozer looked sort of like Annie Potts in a lot of makeup. My theory was that Egon was actually thinking of Janine at that moment (as part of their unresolved sexual tension), and thus this was the first manifestation of Gozer's "think of something and I'll appear as it to destroy you" schtick.
EDGE: Back to the Future. This was another tough call. The Ghostbusters, en masse, have a strong cadre of villains, but what does it say that a whole group of them barely outpoints the singularly awesome Biff? You've gotta go with Thomas F. Wilson...which is also a sentence uttered by the night manager at the Burger King at which Wilson now works when someone experienced is needed to clean out the fryer.
Back to the Future wins this by a landslide, though it's somewhat unfair since the narrative was specifically constructed to include these running jokes about Marty's life and the people of Hill Valley throughout all three movies. The best Ghostbusters can do in the running gag category are the scenes where Ray and Egon just go off spouting this nonsensical jargon and everyone else just stands there slack-jawed.
Some people could write an entire post about this section alone. The DeLorean vs. the Ecto-1. Damn. Couldn't we just stick a flux capacitor into the Ecto and call it a day?
Sigh. Fine. I'm picking the Ecto-1 in a controversial decision due to one factor: the siren. That car has the most distinctive whining alarm I've ever heard, and yet it is never irritating and somehow oddly fitting. In the scene where the Ghostbusters are leaving City Hall on the way downtown to confront Gozer, if you listen carefully, you can hear the siren perfectly sync up with the opening keyboard riffs of "Saving The Day." That's just magic. Kudos to the sound editors on that one.
Here's the other breaking point. When arguing over cars, the ultimate dispute-ender is to ask yourself which car would you have rather driven to the front of the school in for your senior prom? Both the DeLorean and the Ecto-1 would've caused a total "holy shit" reaction from your fellow classmates, but you see, with the DeLorean, the amazement only starts when you actually pull up. With the Ecto-1's siren, you can hear it coming. People are milling about, admiring each other's tuxes and dresses, when suddenly a mild whining sound echos in the distances. Nobody notices at first, but it persistently gets louder as it approaches the school. Eventually the flashing lights on the top of the car appear on the horizon, and a few eagle-eyed seniors point. A few awed utterances of "Oh my God..." are heard as the car pulls into the drive, followed by wild cheering. If your senior class is particularly witty, they'll bust into a perfectly coordinated "GHOST-busters, GHOST-busters" chant like the crowd gathered in front of Dana's apartment in the movie.
(In a related story, I went to my senior prom in my mother's old Toyota Prelude. Like the Ecto-1, it was white. End transmission. 'Prelude' has to be one of the all-time worst names for a car. Prelude to what? The prelude to you buying a better car?)
Another category somewhat tilted in BTTF's favour, since the evolution of Hill Valley is a key part of the entire trilogy. The clock tower, the soda shop, the high school, the Twin Pines/Lone Pine Mall --- by the end of the third movie, you feel like you could draw a map of Hill Valley. Not to mention the town's thriving manure industry, given how often Biff ends up in the shit.
Ghostbusters makes good use of New York, which is a feat unto itself given how the city is the setting for roughly 75% of all movies. That fire hall was a great home base, though it was explored in greater detail in the cartoons. The Christmas I got the toy version of the Ghostbusters fire hall was perhaps the best Xmas of my life. I was doing some searching on Wikipedia to double-check some facts for this post, and just to show you that you learn something new every day, I was shocked to discover that Dana's apartment building is an actual place on Central Park West. Even more shocking, I actually walked within a few blocks of it on my trip to New York last summer. If I had known we were so close when we were in Columbus Square, I would've ignored my foot pain and led the group down Central Park West for a pilgrimage. When I'm back in NYC in 2010, this will take top priority. I wonder how the building's residents reacted to their home being so prominently featured on film as a doorway to unspeakable evil. Even more of a question, how the hell did Dana Barrett (a cellist) manage to afford an apartment in such an expensive building?
EDGE: Back to the Future
I've probably seen Ghostbusters more times than any other movie. Between the ages of six and 10, I probably saw that movie (no exaggeration) at least once a week. It was pretty cool of my parents, in hindsight, to let a six-year-old watch a 'grownup' movie, but hey, they made the right call. What would've warped their child more: letting me suffer for years knowing there was a Ghostbusters movie out there but I wasn't allowed to see it until I hit a certain age, or just letting me watch a movie with a few curse words? Speaking of those big swears, here's a funny story. I was so young that I didn't really recognize them as expletives, but felt that from their tone and placement that they sounded funny. So I remember walking upstairs and asking my mother if "s-h-i-t" was a swear word --- I didn't want to actually say it, since if it WAS a swear, then by gosh, I'd have said a swear word, and that was bad news. Even at a young age, I employed crackpot logic. My mom politely informed me that it was, and my response was a simple nod. Man, I was a well-behaved kid.
Anyway, watching the movie that many times didn't dim my enjoyment one bit. I've only seen Ghostbusters a few times over the years, but every time I come across it via channel-surfing (like last Sunday), I've got to drop whatever I'm doing. As for BTTF, I've seen it more over the years due to the fact that TBS aired it at least once a month for about, oh, a solid decade. And again, it's often that whatever I'm doing in an afternoon will have to be put on hold until....ah, wait, there's the tiebreaker.
EDGE: Ghostbusters. See, if I notice Ghostbusters is on, I'm staying for the duration. If BTTF is on, I probably leave after George punches out Biff. 100 percent of the movie trumps 90 percent.
Ok, I actually liked Ghostbusters II. It gets a lot of crap for being a weak sequel, but I thought it lived up to the original pretty well. Vigo was a good villain, the mood slime was an interesting idea, and really, it's hard to fault a film with a climax that involves the Statue of Liberty walking through Manhattan. Pop quiz: Ghostbusters-controlled Statue of Liberty vs. the Cloverfield monster. Who wins?
That said, BTTF gets the nod just because its sequels are more ambitious. The second one pretty inventively wraps itself around the events of the original, although I think I agree with one review I read of the movie that argued you know things are too complex when Doc Brown literally has to map things out on a blackboard. But still, BTTF II was pretty strong and BTTF III was a nice, straight-forward conclusion to the story. People forget this now, but this was the first film series to experiment the "shoot both sequels together and them release them close to each other" style that is seen so often with major film franchises today. BTTF II came out in the summer of 1989, and I think BTTF III was out only about nine months later. They get an A for their efforts, while the next series to try this (the Matrix) gets a D-. The third Matrix film is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Seriously. It's Batman & Robin bad. I award it no points and may the Architect have mercy on its soul.
Two funny points about Back to the Future III
--- You may remember Doc getting aside a series of color-coded logs that needed to be used to fire the locomotive's engine to get it up to 88 miles per hour. My friends Dave and Jeff went to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit for a field trip back in their school days, and came across an old steam engine as part of a display. Jeff leans over to Dave and says in a perfect Christopher Lloyd impression, "Marty! Throw on the yellow logs!" It's been a running joke ever since. One of these years I'm going to have to name my fantasy ball team the Yellow Logs.
--- The most unintentionally funny scene in the series comes when Doc is showing Marty his plan by the now-standard process of designing a scale model of the town. What killed me is that everything is labelled. Even the DeLorean is labelled 'time machine.' Does Doc think that Marty won't be able to identify it or something?
Marty: Hey Doc, what's this car here for?
Doc: Marty, that's the DeLorean! That's the time machine that has been at the center of our lives for the past month!
Marty: Ohhhhh, THAT DeLorean.
EDGE: Back to the Future.
Random Pop Culture Appearances
Christopher Lloyd guest-starred on an episode of Spin City playing Fox's political mentor, and I'm sure a few time travel joke were made. Dan Aykroyd, however, showed up as Ray in the live-action Casper movie completely out of nowhere as one of a parade of ghost-hunters who were hired to go after Casper. If I recall correctly from the time I half-heartedly watched that thing on an in-flight movie, Aykroyd's line was "Who ya gonna call? Someone else."
EDGE: Ghostbusters. That's actually a pretty clever idea for a cameo.
There was a short-lived BTTF cartoon that followed Doc Brown and his sons Jules and Verne through the centuries in their souped-up time train. It sucked. This category is really just an excuse to rhapsodize about the greatest Saturday morning cartoon show in history, the Real Ghostbusters. I exaggerate not a whit when I say that my schedule as a youngster entirely revolved around being home in time to see this show. "Hey Mark, isn't your schedule today still dominated around way too much TV?" Shut up, Voice of Reason. Part of the reason I'm so gung-ho about a Ghostbusters live-action series is that the cartoon provides a perfect blueprint for how the stories and characters could be told. In fact, at gunpoint, I'd even take the cartoons over the movies as the perfect example of Ghostbusters stories. The man responsible for this is former series head writer J. Michael Straczynski, who went on to become a heralded comic book writer and creator of the Babylon 5 TV series. So really, the fact that I just slobbered all over myself praising an 80's cartoon is nerdy, but not as nerdy as praising JMS's other work. Yay?
EDGE: Ghostbusters by a country mile.
Back to the Future has one of the best soundtracks of the 1980's. "The Power of Love" and "Back In Time" are two of Huey Lewis' better songs (for more on the work on Huey Lewis, talk to Patrick Bateman), Alan Silvestri's score is instantly memorable and it can be argued that BTTF single-handedly turned 'Earth Angel' from a somewhat-forgotten 50's chestnut into a pantheon song.
Against most mortal films, BTTF would easily win the music category. Unfortunately, even Huey and Silvestri must fall to the power of the best theme song in movie history. Even today, when you're picking up a phone, there's a good chance someone will ask 'Who ya gonna call?', thus leading to the inevitable response. This joke is still running strong after close to 25 years. This isn't the first time I've raved about Ray Parker Jr. on this blog --- remember that clip of Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street I posted a few months back? That's actually Ray Parker Jr. on guitar. Small world. I mentioned those bullshit AFI lists a few categories back, but the one that galled me the most of all the 100 Years...100 Whatevers series was the absolutely inexplicable snub of the Ghostbusters theme from the 100 Songs list. I know, I know, getting angry over arbitrary lists is a fool's errand, but what the hell. This is the worst sin against music committed by the AFI since...well, the last album by the band AFI. There's no better endorsement I can give of the song than mentioning that since I started writing this post, I've listened to Parker's classic about 20 times. In a row. I'm sick.
EDGE: Ray Parker Jr. has it all over Huey Lewis in this category. Uh, perhaps not in real life though, since Lewis sued Parker for plagiarism, claiming that 'Ghostbusters' was too close to Lewis' "I Want A New Drug." How ironic.
Back to the Future wins 6-5. It is truly the greater franchise. But....wait, that's just not true. If you look at the categories, you'll notice that BTTF came out on top in terms of characters, story, etc. but Ghostbusters won all of the extraneous categories that really make up a true 'franchise.' The Back to the Future films stand the test of time, but were so specifically conceived as movies that by the end of BTTF III, you're fully satisfied. That's where Ghostbusters steps up. Perhaps due to Bill Murray saying no, audiences never got their fill of Ghostbusters. The franchise is due for a resurgence as the new video game (written by Ramis and Aykroyd and conceived as, essentially, the Ghostbusters III that never happened) is expected to be one of the major console hits of 2008. I'm not going to lie -- I'm looking forward to once again wielding a proton pack, but instead of using two pieces of wood I found in my school playground, I'll be using a Wii.
So let's call it a draw. Back to the Future, specifically the first film, provides the better movies. Ghostbusters provides a better all-around experience. Whereas BTTF will stand forever as an 80's classic, Ghostbusters can perhaps exist for years to come in whatever forms of media Dan Aykroyd can twist Bill Murray's arm into accepting.